April 23 . 2024
Julie Delpy





Directing Freed Her From The Fixation on Beauty That Goes With Being An Actress
An interview by Julia Stiles, Actor to Actor
Photographed by Melodie McDaniel
Hair by Alan Martinez / Makeup by Ashley Gomila

French Actress Julie Delpy must never sleep. She’s just returned from Greece, having completed the much-anticipated “Before Midnight,’ a follow-up to “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset.” She writes, directs and stars in her own movies, sometimes even editing them and composing the musical score. It is hard to know what to call her, other than “Expert Multi-tasker.”

When I spoke with her one afternoon, Delpy fielded my questions while cooing to her son, Leo, that she loves him. She has directed four films in the last five years, which is no small feat in an unforgiving industry. For the tenacious Delpy, the early stages of writing are structured around her son. She works while he is at school, until all hours of the morning, and squeezes in time at her computer while he takes an afternoon snooze. No stranger to all-nighters, Delpy battled a severe migraine headache during her panel discussion at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and proceeded to negotiate a distribution deal until five in the morning. Her last film, a sequel to her directorial debut Two Days in Paris, starred Chris Rock and even Delpy’s real-life father. It was made directly on the heels of another film, because directing is, as Delpy puts it, “addictive.” She cobbles together independent funding piecemeal, a process that makes her feel like every film is her first, but she is more comfortable asking for financing than auditioning for an acting gig. “I’m more confident convincing people I am a good director than a good actor,” Delpy muses. “It is easier to fight for my thoughts than my physical being.”

Delpy began acting at age fourteen, under the helm of none other than Jean Luc Godard, in his film Detective. She believes she was too young, particularly because of being so impressionable amidst the intensity of a movie set. She recalls an experience with another actress whose self-conscious sex appeal earned her more screen time, leaving Delpy to turn to writing as another form of expression. Of her peers, she recalls, “I didn’t want to be that and I didn’t want to compete with that.” By age sixteen she had written her first screenplay and knew she wanted to direct. With encouragement from Godard, and consistent mentoring from directors like Agnieska Holland and Kristof Kieslowski, who cast Delpy in his film White, Delpy went on to co-write Before Sunrise with Richard Linklater and Ethan Hawke. The film garnered Academy awards for the trio, and years later they went on to collaborate on its sequel Before Sunset.

Even as she stepped behind the lens, though, Delpy never gave up acting entirely. She usually casts herself in the leading role, and as her films have matured, varying in tone and genre, the stories remain overtly personal. Her second film, 2009’s The Countess, was a bold departure for an actor/director associated with romantic comedy. Based on a true story, The Countess centers around a Hungarian royal’s pursuit of eternal youth.¬†Convinced that the blood of young virgins makes her more beautiful, she embarks on a killing spree as the result of an unrequited obsession with a younger man, played by Daniel Bruhl.

In one of the more gruesome scenes, Countess Bathory makes an incision in her breast, and sews a lock of her lover’s hair under the skin. As the Countess’ political power wains, she rages at the only thing she can control- her appearance. The story is almost a warning cry to ambitious women everywhere, and though it is set in seventeenth century Europe, it is a ruthless exploration of Delpy’s own darker views on vanity.

Now 42, Delpy is stunning, with a natural beauty utterly lacking in self-consciousness. Her admitted disregard for appearance is part of what prompted Delpy to step behind the camera. “There is kind of sadomasochism to acting,” Delpy observes. “It is both pleasurable and painful.” She remembers her parents, both actors, loving the craft while struggling with the difficulties of an insecure lifestyle. For Delpy, directing freed her from the fixation on beauty that goes with being an actress. “Everyone grows old, so you just have to embrace it, ” Delpy says. “I’ve never cared about my looks, which always got me in trouble.” Operating in an industry that values conventionality as a marquee item, directing has also allowed Delpy to embrace what makes her unique. She describes her fourth film, Le Skylab, as the story of a dysfunctional family reunion. With a lovingly humorous touch, though, Delpy manages to celebrate each character’s imperfections. Told through the eyes of eleven-year old Albertine, Le Skylab also focuses on a young girl’s budding interest in sex. No topic is off-limits, including war, incest, aging, cold-sores, and even pubic hair. In a genre replete with cliche, Delpy succeeds in avoiding the maudlin. Delpy plays Albertine’s mother, a woman with strong progressive views fighting to be heard in an era of nascent feminism. The character was largely inspired by her own mother, to whom the film is dedicated.

Delpy is pragmatic about film-making, devoid of preciousness about her own work. She observes, “unlike a novel, a screenplay has a virtual existence. It is nothing until it is a film.” Years before Le Skylab, Delpy had the idea to make something set in an era before technology impeded personal connection, but she abandoned the script for other projects. “It’s not rocket science. To be a good director, you just have to plan.”

Nostalgia kept gnawing at her, and she revisited the story shortly after her mother’s death. “No matter how difficult it can be to finish a movie, it is better than all the suffering and death and boredom in life.” Not that she is complaining. Delpy enjoys telling stories, and hearing people laugh. Whether it is to her son, or an audience at a film festival, creativity helps her make sense of the circus in her head. With absolute sincerity she admits, “I’m at a place in my life now that is better than I could have dreamed of.” Smart-cookie.